Trumpublican conservatives love to compare America's 45th president to their revered Ronald Reagan. Both were populist. Both were scorned by the media. And both, of course, delivered bigly cut taxes.
But Reagan's Republican Party, built on enthusiasm toward markets and skepticism toward government, would never have embraced big government the way President Trump's party has.
Consider, for instance, the Trump administration's terrible idea about replacing food stamps with mail-delivered food boxes. Under President Trump's new budget proposal, some low-income households would receive packages with items such as shelf-stable milk, pasta, peanut butter, and canned fruits and vegetables — all purchased, packaged, and distributed by Uncle Sam. It's almost Soviet in its conceit.
It's also an almost perfect example of what Reagan Republicans used to deride as "big government." Instead of giving low-income Americans a debit card to spend on groceries of their choice — a relatively simple policy solution that seems to work pretty well — Team Trump would have government bureaucrats assemble and run a food distribution system across a continent-sized nation for more than 30 million people. It is exactly this sort of ill-conceived, poorly thought-out scheme that led Reagan to famously say, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
The GOP used to know and appreciate that the government is good at some things, such as cutting Social Security checks, and bad at so many others. But somewhere, somehow, the party lost its way.
At the core of traditional center-right economic thinking is the idea that the world is a pretty complicated place, and no all-knowing bureaucrat or massive bureaucracy has enough information to efficiently distribute society's resources. In accomplishing that goal, decentralized market prices will always beat centralized government planning.
This idea that policymakers should show humility about what they can accomplish is critical to the philosophy of Friedrich Hayek. Indeed, Republicans were so freaked out about creeping socialism during the Obama presidency that they turned Hayek's 1944 warning against central planning, The Road to Serfdom, into an unlikely bestseller. And what better ideological champion for the burgeoning Tea Party movement than Hayek, the gloomy Austrian economist known for his attacks on interventionist John Maynard Keynes? Hayek was also a major influence on Reagan.
But this is Trump's GOP. No one really objects when the Republican vice president says, "The free market has been sorting it out and America's been losing," as Mike Pence did right after the 2016 election. So apparently it's time for big government to step in, whether by nudging companies to keep factories in the U.S., trying to reorder the global trading system, or creating another middle-class entitlement in the form of paid leave. Some big government GOPers are also itching to turn America's tech titans into heavily regulated utilities.
Then there's Trump's decision to hand-wave away a huge increase in federal debt and deficits. Before the Great Recession, the debt-to-GDP ratio was 35 percent. But the Trump tax cuts and increased spending in the recent budget deal could push debt to 109 percent of GDP in 2027, "higher than the previous record of 106 percent of GDP set just after World War II," notes the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
But if the Trump GOP has now become the other party of big government, it is that only for some. For seniors, an important GOP constituency, their "earned benefits" through Medicare and Social Security are safe for now. They get the full Keynes. But for others, such as those whose key programs are income supports or Medicaid and might lean Democratic, it's back to Hayek for them. Big government for me, but not for thee.
Another big government party is not what America needs. Instead, we need a party of limited government that has thoughtfully considered what is the appropriate role of government and what should be left to the private sector. But there is little sign Republicans are ready to do this, or even think it's an important question to consider.